Falling Into Grace

IMG_1045 (1)Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a day in which the very ordinary—a meal, can be turned into the extraordinary—a meal. It is a time to transform surviving into thriving. A time for gratitude.

But, today is much like a Thanksgiving more than a decade ago when I could not see my way clear to feel that. I could not muster up gratitude no matter how hard I tried.

So, I did a meditation where I invited gratitude in. She took me through a dark tunnel that formed after the lava from a volcanic eruption hardened into black rock. It was not comfortable making my way through through the tunnel. It was the blackest darkness I had ever experienced. But there was an end to it. It led me into a cave covered in paintings that told the stories of those who had lived eons earlier.

I placed my hand on a painting of a horse and heard a chorus of voices say, “This is what it means to be human.”

That’s how I found gratitude that year.

All over Facebook I see messages that encourage us to be thankful, assure us, or maybe demand from us, that there is always something to be thankful for. I’m not big on that. Sometimes, there is just too much in the way. And I think we have a right to feel the grief we feel and the despair that accompanies it. It is the black-dark tunnel we must walk through to find our connection to being human again.

This past year has been one of grief and despair. Some of it from an accumulation of losses that fell one after the other over two decades with no time in between to give grief its due. And then there was the election and the pall of meanness and cynicism that has descended on our country.

More than once, I had to pull myself out of my own La Brea tar pit.

So this Thanksgiving is a subdued one for me. Tom and I used to host dinners for as many as 12 people. I miss that. But, Tom and I have found a way to honor the holiday with just the 2 of us. We are grateful for each other.

I think the most difficult thing about grief is it feels like we have fallen out of grace. I don’t think we actually do, but it is certainly a loneliness of the soul that is part of being human. It’s what makes us unique and connects us to eons of being human.

I like this definition of grace: the unearned gift. It is the life spirit that allows us to thrive regardless of our surroundings.

I think my time for grieving is drawing to a close. It’s time for me to venture out into the world where grief becomes a distant memory rather than a constant companion. What I learned from my journey through this latest tunnel is my own tenderness. My natural inclination has been to be a warrior—to fight for the higher purpose. So I’m not sure what it means for me to be tender, disarmed and without armor.

But, I’m certain that the tenderness of being a warrior is as powerful as the warrior wading into battle. Both require banishing fear from my workshop.

Maybe the only thing in the way of grace is fear.

Joy and sorrow are flip sides of the same coin. We really can’t have one without the other. That’s what it means to be human. Why we must treat each other with kindness. Banish fear of each other so we can let grace through.

Let Stories Happen

Radical womanA year ago on this day, I woke in despair and disbelief. I had planned on either literally or virtually wailing at the sky last night, to mark a year of despair. Despair had remained, but disbelief had turned into belief. That is, I broke denial and came to believe that the worst actually had happened. It was not a nightmare I would wake from. It was one I was living.

But then, another election happened.

It wasn’t simply that my “side” had won. It was that the true face of America had prevailed. The pale-pink-anger-contorted faces of men had been replaced by faces of many hues and genders, including the face of a transgender woman, and a red-headed man whose grief for the woman who was taken from him by a gun rose to action for gun control.

I don’t believe that women are better than men. Nor do I believe that the hue of one’s skin determines either inherent value or inherent racism.

What I do believe is that the voices, the authentic stories of women and people of color have gone unheard long enough. It’s not that the stories weren’t being told. They were being unheard.

On Tuesday, stories were heard and they resonated and people were moved to change our cultural story.

Confederate statues isn’t our history. Slavery is our history.

Conquest of a continent isn’t our history. Genocide is our history.

Neither is a history that has been relegated to the past anymore than an abuser’s apology relegates abuse to the past.

We can only relegate our history to the past when we reconcile it. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution don’t make us a great nation. Our adherence to them is what gives us the tools for greatness. Not a greatness that means we are better than any other country, but rather, a greatness that strives to rise above fear of the other.

We reconcile and overcome our fear of the other by telling and hearing authentic stories.

On Tuesday, stories were heard and they resonated and people were moved to change our cultural story.

Tuesday was preceded by a year of what I can only call awfulness. Charlottesville. Las Vegas. Sexual assault and predation exposed and condemned, except for the alleged acts of the man who holds the office of president. Bullying disguised as strength. Racism and xenophobia vaunted as patriotism. And then seven percent of a Sutherland Springs’ population was massacred within minutes, including 8 people encompassing 3 generations from the same family, within minutes.

And then followed the story told by opining politicians: we can’t politicize the massacre by talking about gun control, only by becoming a nation of armed citizens at churches, schools, shopping malls, and so on. We must always fear the other is that story.

That is not the authentic story. That is the covering story.

Fear of change is powerful. Especially if the change means a loss of power, or a perceived loss of power. So, we need to hear the stories those in fear tell, and receive them with compassion, hearing the sub-text behind the story, then transform them.

When I hear former general John Kelly tell the story of the sacredness of his son’s death in combat, underneath the stoic acceptance I hear the unfathomable grief of losing his son, “my boy” he called him.

That, to me, the unfathomable grief of losing a child, of having a child taken violently, is the authentic story—the story that Black Lives Matter is trying to tell. That is the story Blue Lives Matter is trying to tell.

That is a story that can connect us.

We need to change the cultural story from one that divides us to one that connects us.

The only thing that will prevent massacres like Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs is to relegate assault-style weapons to their intended purpose: war. There is nothing sportsman about them. Period. Full stop.

In the late 70s Physicians for Social Responsibility used a medical model for arguing against the use of nuclear weapons: if there is no treatment or cure for a disease, the only medical option is to prevent it. I think we need to apply that argument to assault-style weapons.

That, I think, is how we can change that particular story.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” ~Anne Frank

The quote from Anne Frank’s diary is one of her final entries. I never thought she was foolish for writing that, for believing that. I think she saw that we all have, in our hearts, the choice of darkness or light, and that in the end, light would prevail, though it might come too late to save her. Her diary is her story. We owe it to her to tell the story again. Her family, like the families in Sutherland Springs, was massacred. As were the children and teachers at Sandy Hook, the concert goers at Las Vegas, the high school students and teachers in Columbine. Columbine is no longer one of the top 10 massacres.

On Tuesday, stories were heard and they resonated and people were moved to change our cultural story.

I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Those Words of Wisdom


That’s Mr. Fraser in the middle

The future does not seem as inviting as it once was. It’s not that I see the glass is half empty so much as I fear it is being inexorably pushed to the edge of the counter, not by a playful cat, but rather by a spiteful man with a heart that cannot humanize his experience of being human.

Fifty years ago, I read William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. What we should write about, he said is the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. That alone is what is worth writing about, he says, worth the agony and the sweat.

I return to that speech at least once a year. The memory of it comes to me rather randomly. In a strange way, in much the same way that grief decides to pay a visit. But, unlike grief, Faulkner’s speech is welcome.

I read it in my senior year of high school, in my English Honors class, taught by the lovely-hearted Mr. Fraser. I had also been in his freshman English class where he read us passages from the Shakespeare plays we studied—read them with the voice of an actor who understood that Shakespeare wrote about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.

I was in his freshman English class the day JFK was killed. Mr. Snodgrass had rushed into our classroom to retrieve a radio just before the bell rang. As we pulled out our books, the news that President Kennedy had been shot floated across the hallway.

For the next twenty minutes, Mr. Fraser held that class of 14-year olds in his steady heart as we waited, not knowing what we were waiting for. First we heard he had been shot. Then we learned he had been shot in the head. Twenty minutes into the class, the news that he had died floated across the hallway.

The president has died, the announcement came over the school’s public address system. School is dismissed.

A few of the 14-year old boys sprang to their feet and cheered that school had been dismissed. I suspect their reaction didn’t come from malice, but rather a 14-year old boy’s confusion about how to react to his emotions.

Mr. Fraser, who had been so calm and comforting, pulled off his glasses and glared at them. He was barely 5’4’’ tall, but he loomed over the classroom at that moment. “A man has died.” He said it with his Shakespeare voice. “Respect that.”

Mr. Fraser was the adult in the room that day, though he was probably no more than twenty-four. What he spoke were words of wisdom.

I cherish my education at Granada High School in Livermore, California. It comprised literature, history, science, and civics. It gave me no absolutes. It gave me a foundation to think, and taught me how to learn. It gave me a way to be in the world, to navigate what was to come.

That is why I fear the glass is about to be pushed off the edge.

dad with still

My dad in his khakis — he wore them everyday when he went to work in Saudi Arabia. Here he is with his still—homemade hooch because alcohol was illegal in Arabia.

I come from a working class background. My dad was an electrician, a proud member of the IBEW. Whenever I hear that the working class white man is angry and feels forgotten I understand what that means. My father did get left behind. And it was Ronald Reagan who left him behind by weakening his union, breaking its ability to negotiate the value of his labor. He spent the last five years of his life without getting a cost-of-living raise. That ate into his pension and left him feeling that his labor was not valued and so he was not valued.

What I don’t understand is how that justifies the trope, “the heartland doesn’t care about whether Russia interfered with our election — all they care about is not being left behind economically.”

If that indeed is true, that those in the heartland feel that way, I say shame on them. My father never would have bought the bullshit that is being spewed by our current president. He never would have believed that this man-boy born into financial privilege was anything like the men who toiled as my father did, counting on their paycheck to care for their families. He understood that we are a self-governing nation. And he was proud of that and understood that meant vigilance.

The easiest way to gain control over a nation is to divide it. To convince those who have been left behind that that “other” over there is the one who took from them their God-given right to whatever was taken. God chose them, not the other.

What I learned in high school has never been more clear to me than it is now because I have never felt that what I cherish about my country is in danger of being overtaken by men and women whose conflicted hearts have been turned to stone—who have spurned the better angels of their nature.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”~Abraham Lincoln

Whether that glass is half full or half empty, once it is pushed off the edge, there is no more glass, nor what was in it.

I don’t know how to protect that glass or how to catch it if it is pushed over the edge. I have never felt so hopeless and helpless as I do now.

And then I re-read this by Joseph Campbell in “Thou Art That”:

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It was once possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

So there they are—the words of wisdom I was seeking. And these:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which (sic) have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. ~William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize speech

Write about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. Recognize the darkness that lurks in the heart, but glorify the better angels of our nature. To write is to hope. And so I will.

Post Script: Tom and I saw Mr. Fraser, by then we called him Bert, in 1995 while visiting New York City. Sadly, that was the last time we saw him. He passed away shortly thereafter, leaving the world a little poorer.